The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook

by

Doris Lessing

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The Golden Notebook: The Notebooks: 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Both columns of the black notebook are now filled. Under “Source,” on November 11, 1955: A man kicks a pigeon, expecting it to fly away, but it hits a lamppost and falls to the ground. A woman yells at him and a crowd gathers as the pigeon writhes on the ground. Two boys mock the woman’s concern and “an efficient frowning man” proclaims the pigeon dead, then picks it up, and finds himself unsure what to do with the body. The woman follows the kicker, demanding his name and address, until the boys distract her and start making fun of the efficient man, who threatens to call the police. They leave; the woman takes the pigeon to bury it at home.
This memory of Anna’s centers on the people’s varying responses to the pigeon’s death: the kicker commits violence without realizing it or truly caring, the woman feels a deep sense of concern and injustice, the boys mock her empathy, and the “efficient” man is completely disconnected. Respectively, these seem to quite loosely represent Jimmy, Maryrose, Paul, and Willi’s attitudes about violence and justice in the story that follows.
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November 12: Anna dreams about the pigeon, realizing only upon waking that it reminds her of a story from Africa, one weekend at the Mashopi Hotel. Mrs Boothby brings a .22 rifle to breakfast, asking if anyone can shoot—which Paul Blackenhurst can—because Mr Boothby wants pigeon pie. She directs Paul to a nearby marsh, and he goes with Jimmy, Willi, Maryrose, and Anna out into the veld after breakfast.
While Paul is training for the Air Force, ironically this episode is the closest thing he experiences to combat. Anna’s group agrees to go more out of boredom than any sense of obligation to the Boothby family or taste for pigeon, which shows how truly lost and out of place they are in Africa.
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The group passes “a million white butterflies” and a cloud of other insects mating furiously, “the very emblem of stupidity.” Paul Blackenhurst suggests that the butterflies are also “pursuing vile sex”; Paul and Jimmy crouch down to pull busy grasshoppers off one another and reorganize two couples, re-matching insects with others of their own size—but the bugs return to their initial pairings. Jimmy jokes that perhaps some are same-sex couples. Everyone is uncomfortable, although they would not have been if Paul had said the same thing. Paul crushes his two insect couples, which offends Maryrose, and gives a speech imitating Stalin, which alienates everyone.
The insects’ gratuitous coupling points to the group’s hedonistic attitude in Africa and, of course, romantic frustrations. While Paul and Jimmy first try to rearrange the couples and create better matches (much as the group’s members yearn to shuffle their own romantic loyalties), the insects revert back to normal (just as Anna remains in her unsatisfying relationship with Willi till the end, despite loving George and eventually pursuing Paul). Paul crushes the insect just as he unempathetically dismisses so many suitors, especially Jimmy, who uses the insects to express his own discomfort with his sexuality and love for Paul.
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They walk on through the veld; Anna remembers the distinct kind of heat, which suggests that it must have been October or November, a few months before Paul Blackenhurst died the morning after eloping with Anna down this same path in the veld. They reach a clump of trees—they see only one pigeon but hear innumerable, maddening cicadas. Paul shoots the pigeon and, like a hunting dog, Jimmy retrieves it. They can hear more pigeons in the distance. Jimmy pokes at some holes he finds in the sand and, irritated, Paul takes his grass-stem and unearths the insect that made them.
In retrospect, Anna imagines this episode as foreshadowing her eventual move from Willi to Paul, but this reveals the fundamental difference between literature and experience, which lacks such definite links between the present and the future.
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Two more pigeons arrive; Paul Blackenhurst shoots them and Jimmy reluctantly retrieves them. Then one more—Paul splatters Jimmy’s arm with blood but fails to kill the bird. Jimmy challenges him to finish the job, but the bird dies before Paul can figure out what to do. Jimmy angrily calls him “damned lucky,” and Paul acknowledges that “the Gods favour me,” but remarks that he could not have killed the pigeon with his own hands. They still need two more. They watch the ant-eating insect that dug the sand pits trap and kill two ants. Paul explains that these “realities of nature” make him grateful to have come to Africa; Jimmy says, “I hate this country” and declares that he cannot wait to return home.
Paul and Jimmy’s tense relationship is on full display: while Jimmy does Paul’s bidding, they both resent one another—Paul because of Jimmy’s feelings, Jimmy because Paul rejects him. Paul’s interest in “realities of nature” (meaning the survival of the strong and the death of the week) probably relates to his desire to prove his own masculinity and superiority, for indeed he takes pride in his relative power in the group—although it is really only because he claims this power, and not because anyone respects him (although Anna and Jimmy are in love with him, he is only the group’s core because he argues with Willi for sport, and Maryrose hates him).
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Another pigeon approaches, but turns and flies away; some farmworkers pass with averted eyes and an obvious fear of the rifle-carrying white people. Paul Blackenhurst goes into a tongue-in-cheek speech about how the colony has enough resources for its million and a half blacks—like the whole world, says Maryrose. Humorlessly, Willi says to look to “the philosophy of the class struggle,” and everyone but Maryrose laughs at him. Paul asks Maryrose why she never laughs—she did when she was with her brother, of course, for she was happy (which none of the others have ever been). Paul shoots another bird on his second try, then retrieves it himself when Jimmy refuses.
The black workers’ presence is a reminder that the socialists are nevertheless agents of colonial power. Paul makes an obvious point, which everyone in the group accepts as true yet all the white colonists who surround them refuse to consider: that their own power in Africa is unjust, and that it would be better for them to be overthrown and their resources distributed to the native population. Of course, the paradox is that they are there anyway, and to fight for justice would mean to fight themselves. Paul seems to recognize this irony but puts his self-interest above the global interest in justice, which is why he makes fun of Willi. Willi seems not to recognize their own position within systems of power and oppression, and simply talks about revolution dispassionately.
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Paul Blackenhurst insists on shooting one more bird, describing the “toothsome pie” that they might all share with Mr Boothby and asking whether the others would remember the pigeons’ “tender songs” while eating them; the women would, and Paul says that they are tender, too. He speaks of the fields they can see being covered with houses for workers and criticizes “the simple savagery” of Africans—another joke on Willi, who falls for it easily. Maryrose reassures Willi that they are laughing at his predictability, not his words. Paul disagrees—Willi is wrong—and imagines seeing industry here when he becomes an investor in the future. Three more birds appear, Paul shoots them and Jimmy brings them back. They have enough pigeons, so it is time to head back.
Paul, like the boys in the story that opened this section of the black notebook, mocks the women’s empathy for other living creatures and Willi’s interest in creating a just society, which Paul interprets as forms of weakness—he sees only the strong dominating the weak. Although he is still clearly joking, Paul’s declaration that he will become an investor is the closest he gets to admitting his true values. Anna’s love for him is deeply contradictory given her own beliefs, but it is merely the first time she falls for narcissistic men overly concerned with their own masculinity—as proven by her relationship with Michael and her coming romances in the remainder of the book.
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A large beetle approaches, and Jimmy puts it in the ant-eater pit, where it fights with the other insect; another bird lands, and Paul Blackenhurst shoots it, and another, which does not die—but he wrings its neck, then digs out the anteater, which has been decapitated, its jaws stuck in the beetle. He blames Jimmy for “upset[ting] the balance of nature.” They stand up, the cicadas begin shrieking again, and two more pigeons land at the other clump of trees—at Maryrose’s request, Paul refrains from shooting them. The two walk off together; the others remark that they would be a perfect couple, but of course Maryrose has ill feelings toward Paul. They make the return trip in silence, noticing that nearly all the insects have disappeared.
While Paul sees Jimmy “upset[ting] the balance of nature” by putting the beetle in the sand-pit (which is a thinly veiled reference to his homosexuality), Jimmy is also clearly enforcing the rule of force, introducing a stronger, foreign insect to kill the beetle—a process parallel to the colonialism of which they are agents (but, besides Paul, oppose in principle). Although Paul previously claimed he could not kill a bird with his own hands, he eagerly does so here, and the insects’ disappearance points to the group’s own immanent dissolution and departure from the Mashopi Hotel.
Themes
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Under the heading “Money”: A New Zealand review asks Anna for stories, which she does not write, and then journals, which she thinks are better kept private. She writes an imaginary journal, that of “a young American living on an allowance from his father,” traveling in Europe, writing occasionally, disdaining his home country. In entries from April 16 to June 30 in Paris, London, and Italy, the imaginary character names various women, laments his father’s inability to understand his art, makes absurd declarations about what “a writer is,” drops the names of various novelists, plans to kill himself, and publishes a book of pornography, for which his father sends him money as a congratulations.
Rather than offering the personal reflections the review requests, Anna again expresses her feelings about life and art through fiction—but, here, in a parody of male writers’ excesses, art’s futility, and her own diary style. This fake journal-within-a-journal covers all the same themes as Anna’s notebooks—love, the nature of art and writing, suicide, and publication and money (under which it falls in the black notebook)—but also allows her to at once parody and hide behind the overrepresented, often emotionally unsophisticated male perspective.
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Anna shows this to “the young American writer James Schafter,” and they add some more entries before getting it published in an American review. Schafter is a peculiar kind of writer; once for two weeks, he gave his worst critic a generous tour of London—the critic insisted that he would “never allow personal feelings to interfere with my critical conscience,” but published a nuanced and favorable review after two weeks. Unlike most young writers, James embraces corruption rather than naivety, openly and shamelessly flattering directors and critics, treating it as a joke and sometimes reaping benefits from it. “Integrity is the poor man’s codpiece,” he insists.
Anna’s declaration that James is corrupt, not naïve, recalls her emphatic statement from the yellow notebook that Ella’s failed relationship destroyed her “power to create through naivety”; with his irreverence and mockery, James offers a different pathway to creative expression. Like the black notebook’s Paul Blackenhurst, James is more interested in provocation than truth—this allows him to mock the literary world and expose its inanity, but also suggests that he (like Anna) is afraid he has nothing original to say.
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Anna and Schafter decide to invent another journal, this one written by a middle-aged woman, who had spent several years in Africa and “was afflicted with sensibility.” The journal is meant for another of James’s enemies, Rupert, the “wet, limp, hysterical, homosexual, intelligent” editor of Zenith, who has asked Anna for material. On Easter Week, the journal begins with a lengthy description of a Russian Orthodox Church; the people there were “few, yes. But real. This was reality. I was aware of reality.” The fictional diarist meditates on paganism and sexualizes the priests, finds a deeper awareness and decides she is an agnostic, not an atheist; she goes to a literary party and proposes making a play out of Anna’s book, which exposes the true injustice of colonialism: “the tragedy of the whites.” She surveys the advantages of clean linens on her way to bed.
This journal’s author is a fictionalized version of Anna (who is in turn a fictionalized version of the author), with all her worst qualities caricatured. This character’s meditation on “the tragedy of the whites” at once parodies colonial whites’ inability to look beyond their own perspective or see blacks’ humanity, but also offers scathing self-criticism, not only of Frontiers of War—which she wrote as a love story in which the great tragedy is the white male protagonist losing his love, not his black lover getting kicked out of his home—but also the black notebook itself, which emphasizes the tragic situation of the Mashopi Hotel socialists who felt their hands were tied, rather than the tragedy of colonial injustice altogether.
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On Easter Sunday, this character has lunch with someone named Harry and they discussed adapting Frontiers of War by having the white farmer convince the “young African girl” to get an education and elevate herself past her family of “crude Reserve Natives.” She falls in love and accuses him of rape when she learns his true, civilizing motives; this supposedly shows how white people, with their “superior spiritual status,” get “dragged down into the animal mud of Africa.” Anna’s fictionalized version of herself celebrates the “beautiful experience” with a bath.
Harry’s suggestion comes straight from the clichés of British colonialism, many of which still endure: for him and Anna’s parody self, it becomes clear, “the tragedy of the whites” is the fact that British people are “forced” to “civilize” natives. In reality, the tragedy of Anna’s group was that they recognized that their own government was illegally occupying land, then oppressing and murdering its inhabitants and their cultures for the sake of British profits—yet the socialists were themselves British subjects and legally could not leave the colony (curiously, with the exception of Anna). They understood that they were the oppressors, could not help being the oppressors, and could not help the oppressed fight back precisely due to the circumstances of oppression (racial segregation).
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Anna is apprehensive about her parodied character, whom the editors happily accept. Anna insists that the editors promise to publish the journal anonymously.
Of course, the downside of James Schafter’s strategy is that those reading Anna’s work see it as authentic—this is further proof of the literary world’s immorality and corruption, and Anna’s decision to use a pseudonym either betrays her lack of courage or means a refusal to take credit for false art.
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Pasted in the notebook is a story, “Blood on the Banana Leaves,” that James Schafter has written in lieu of the 12 reviews he is supposed to send a literary magazine. After this, he gives up on further parody and writes his serious reviews. In the story, clumsily written and full of heavy-handed racial metaphors, an African couple, John and Noni, lament the violence of colonialism on a stormy night before revealing that Noni has been raped and impregnated by a white man. John goes away to exact revenge, and crude descriptions of the land and plants in the storm close the story, serving as a metaphor for the couple’s pain.
John’s story, perhaps somewhat like Anna’s Frontiers of War, is built on crude stereotypes that point to obvious injustices. While the authors consider their own work unoriginal for this reason, the broader literary world seems delighted because the public does not recognize colonialism as an evil (and, as Anna has seen, popular media outright refuses to do so). This is part and parcel of Anna’s disillusionment with politics: she feels both powerless and far more ideologically sophisticated than everyone with the power to create change.
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Anna has pinned in a review of her novel from August, 1952, in Soviet Writing. It claims she reveals “the real truth behind British Imperialism!” but criticizes her picture of the class struggle: how could the airman and cook meet, and “where are the working masses” and “class conscious fighters?” Another review, from the Soviet Gazette, in 1954, begins by lauding the “majestic and untamed” land and criticizing the unrealistic expectations set by Anna’s excellent opening lines. It hopes that she will eventually learn “that a true artistic work must have a revolutionary life—asserting content, ideological profundity, humaneness, as well as artistic quality.” Anna’s heroines, it insists, are “not yet typical of the deep moral potentialities of the future.”
These reviews reveal how ideology prevents people from genuinely appraising art on its own terms; they also exemplify Anna’s critiques of communist dogma. First, while Anna did have an important political message, these reviews evaluate her art entirely based on that message, not based on its truth or literary quality (which the second review only mentions as an ancillary criterion). Secondly, both reviews only understand the problem of African colonialism in terms of the communist concept of class struggle between workers and bourgeois property owners, but (much like Willi Rodde) do not consider the unique factor that makes colonialism different: the racial segregation that prevented Anna from ever encountering “the working masses” or becoming a “class conscious fighter.”
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A third review, from the Soviet Journal for Literature for Colonial Freedom in 1956, claims that Anna is a “petty psychologiser” of the colonial situation, out of touch with the heroic nationalist struggles. She must “learn from our [Soviet] literature” to overcome her negativity and join the march of historical progress.
This review repeats the others’ faults; notably, Anna’s black and red notebooks are beginning to overlap in content, as these reviews offer a smooth transition between subsequent notebooks for the first time in the novel.
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The red notebook continues on November 13, 1955: The Party changes in the two years following Stalin’s death; Anna and four other ex-members meet nine current members “with full trust.” They are deciding how to reform the British Party and cut its suffocating ties to the Soviet Union. Anna is thrilled, for the first time in many years. An enormous assemblage of newspaper clippings, letters, and schedule documents are stuck in the notebook here.
The Soviet crisis of power and legitimacy after Stalin’s death brings communists together rather than dividing them: as their dogma proves untenable, Party members become open to other ideas and perspectives. In other words, Anna learns that the dissolution of order can actually lead to unification and consolidation.
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On August 11, 1956: As before in her life, Anna spends “weeks and months in frenzied political activity” but accomplishes “absolutely nothing.” The new group grows fast, but an Austrian visitor’s speech illustrates its limits: everyone seems to recognize that the Party leadership is hopelessly corrupt, but “instead of drawing the obvious conclusions” that this leadership must be overthrown, Anna’s band of rebels simply hopes their superiors will resign. Anna notes that people ignore this speech because of its satirical tone, a tone often shared by the finest speeches at such meetings. She says she has reread the previous notebook entry and finds herself “amazed at our naivety.”
While many Party members realize the limits of dogmatic communism and agree to pursue alternatives, those in power do not, and so their efforts are blocked. As with the London canvassers’ joke about whether they could ever get a candidate elected, Paul’s satirical declaration that he will become an investor in African industry, or Anna and James Schafter’s parody journals, in the Austrian’s speech irony again reveals the truth much more clearly than direct discussion ever can.
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On September 20, 1956: Anna stops attending meetings. The rebellious sect understands the risk of creating two competing parties that will denounce each other, but has no better plan; people are quitting the Party en masse, “broken-hearted and cynical to the degree that they were loyal and innocent before.” Some are eager to restart the whole cycle of rethinking and reorganizing. Molly calls to say that Tommy has become one of these eager reformists; he reminds Molly of her younger self and seems to believe that socialism will magically emerge in the West next week.
Two years after Anna quit the party in the previous iteration of the blue notebook, she again gives up on politics, as the continued divisions among Party members make decisive political action impossible. While she understands that this cycle of inspiration and disappointment is inevitable—with Tommy caught in the beginning of it, driven by naïve faith—this understanding only sustains a parallel division in her consciousness—she can now be inspired and disappointed at the same time, disappointed because she knows about the cycle yet inspired to finally break it.
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Anna’s novel The Shadow of the Third continues in the yellow notebook. “The third” in the novel’s title used to be Paul Tanner’s wife, then it was Ella’s alter ego based on “fantasies about Paul’s wife,” then her memory of him, and now Ella, who imagines herself “whole, healthy, and happy” as she “cracks.” The “thirds” are connected by normal, “respectable” emotions that Ella rejects.
Here, Anna explicitly reflects on her novel’s title. All of Ella’s thirds are the third member in her sexual triangle with Paul, the other women—and imagined, normal women she could be—who define her status as his mistress by offering him what she cannot. Ella is constantly forced to live in the “shadow” of those thirds; even though she never encounters them in the “real” world, Ella’s inability to be any of these thirds defines her life. In this sense, the yellow notebook is a “third” to Anna’s life, too, a fictional shadow of her encounters with the world: the story she wishes she could tell about herself, and the novel that defines her inability to get at the truth or unify herself with her art.
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Related Quotes
Ella moves out of Julia’s flat, creating animosity between them. Ella realizes that Julia used to dominate her but now merely complains about her. However, Ella used to be “rather like a willing captive, with the captive’s hidden core of independence.” Leaving Julia feels like leaving her mother or a marriage.
Ella leaves Julia’s flat just as Anna leaves Molly’s, turning their relationship into an equal, free association. The notion that people imprisoned by others in relationships retain a “hidden core of independence”—the choice to be in the relationship at all, the decision to remain captive—is key, because it demonstrates the interdependence of freedom and the lack thereof, neither of which is absolute.
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Ella feels “more alone than she ever has been,” as her closest friendship has fallen into “hatred and resentment,” while Ella continues to ruminate about Paul Tanner. Ella also learns that Julia has “protected [her] from a certain kind of attention”—she sees the difference between living alone as a woman and living with another woman. Dr West tries and fails to start an affair with her; instead, he ends up with Patricia Brent, his last choice. Ella is amused but angered at Patricia’s reverence for him; she resents Dr West despite feeling that his search for an affair is understandable.
Indeed, Anna’s freedom from Molly has deprived her of the freedom to be with Molly and the freedom from unwanted male attention. She realizes in retrospect that her cohabitation with Molly was built on the emotional and social bonds of marriage. Meanwhile, Patricia Brent’s excitement about Dr West shows that her cynicism about men was merely a defense mechanism against admitting her loneliness.
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Ella talks with Julia at a mutual friend’s house, and “their relations are chilly” until she mentions Dr West. Julia replies with a story about an actor from the theater who once came over to complain about his wife, coerced her into sleeping with him through guilt, and then turned out to be impotent. She gave him another chance and he performed no better, calling her a “castrating woman” on his way out.
Ella and Julia again bond over their resentment toward men just like old times, offering each other the mutual understanding they have not found through love. The actor confronts the contradiction between his desires and his physical capacities—in other words, fantasy and reality—by blaming the object of his desire (Julia) rather than accepting his own failure (which he seems poised to repeat).
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Ella gets four phone calls from men at work in the next few weeks and tells Julia, who “shows a flash of triumph.” They share an awkward silence, considering Ella’s departure and the possibility that others believed they were lesbians. Ella thinks that men would have flocked to her and Julia even more in that case, believing themselves “redeemers of these lost females.” At home, Ella “literally feels poisoned by” her own bitterness. She notes that she used to get the same attention a decade before, but considered herself superior to the men’s wives. Now, she thinks she is starting to sound like a spinster.
Men’s propensity to pursue lesbians in an attempt to “redeem” them further proves those men’s own self-defeating desire to control the world and achieve the impossible. While Ella previously believed that men were choosing her because she was better than their existing wives, now she realizes that they actually see her as lesser than their wives, a source of sexual and psychological gratification to supplement their marriages.
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Ella and one of the magazine’s subeditors, Jack, are coming up with articles about women’s emotional problems. They pick both official and satirical private titles for each article. On their last night working together, he drives her home, and she knows he will try and sleep with her. She feels unattracted to him because of Paul Tanner—who also did not attract her at first.
Ella’s knowledge and feelings again pull her in opposite directions with regards to men: she knows that she is more likely to develop than immediately feel an attraction to someone like Jack. However, she is also clearly afraid to repeat her failed relationship with Paul.
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Ella sleeps with Jack, who is “the efficient type of lover.” She feels tearful and blames her own double standard; Jack mentions that his wife is “a good girl” but begins revealing his resentment for her, and Ella knows that she is a tool for him to explore that resentment—and that, when he returns home, his wife will immediately know he has been sleeping around. She decides to give up sex and not tell Julia.
Even though Jack’s job was precisely to write about women’s emotional problems, he seems to lack any understanding of these problems and is completely unable to imagine how Ella might react to his using her.
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At lunch the next day, Ella nevertheless tells Julia about her experience and decision to stop having sex. She worries that her own bitterness will turn into Patricia Brent’s joking criticism of men; Julia’s “is turning rapidly into a corroding contempt.” Ella thinks of them as psychologically lesbian, but manages to refrain from mentioning her overarching dissatisfaction with men to Julia. Ella “begins to suffer torments of sexual desire,” which she has never felt without a specific man in mind; she masturbates to “fantasies of hatred about men,” feeling humiliated. She realizes “she is falling into a lie,” the one that men “contain” women’s sexuality. She continues to refuse the advances of men she cannot love.
Confronted with another failed relationship, Ella chooses the nuclear option: she refuses to pursue the love she knows she needs and deserves. Yet she also recognizes that she must hold out hope for that love, which will require her to eventually come out of her sexual isolation, precisely because she sees the consequences of giving up in Patricia and Julia. She tries and fails to find sexual satisfaction through the rejection of men; she realizes that she must develop the capacity to enjoy sex without hating or giving up her entire sense of self to men.
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Ella starts going to parties again, and she meets a Canadian script-writer whose wife is “professionally beautiful.” He shows up at Ella’s apartment the next morning—they have sex without feeling, and afterward he says he counts himself happy, with work and his wife and now his “girl” (Ella), who has become part of his “project or plan for a happy life.” He seems to think they will continue an affair, and she tells him that things are over, that neither of them have “much conviction in it.” He says he is sexually unsatisfied with his wife and seems to think that he satisfies Ella because “he has a large penis; he is ‘good in bed.’ And that’s it.” He jokes about her appearance; she wonders why “all these intelligent men” suddenly act stupid around women.
The screenwriter, too, views sex as a checklist rather than an emotional experience—he wants a mistress only because he is supposed to and sees his anatomy as evidence of his sexual prowess. He is busy comparing himself to other men rather than considering the interests or experience of the woman he is with; similarly, he pursues the trappings of a happy life without caring whether he is genuinely happy.
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Ella finds Julia “sardonic rather than bitter.” Julia explains that the impotent actor has made another advance, and Ella wonders whether he has forgotten what he did, or whether “we’re all in a sort of sexual mad house.” Ella says this is the price they pay for being “free women,” and Julia laments that the men are not free, but rather stuck on “the old idea of good women and bad women.” Ella finds it freeing for men that they can get erections with anyone, but Julia insists that eight of her last ten partners have been unable to.
Julia’s recognition that men are not free because of an idea is crucial: freedom is fundamentally psychological rather than social. Specifically, it relates to whether people live according to prejudices and expectations or forge and pursue their own understanding of the world. Anna, Molly, Ella, and Julia are not, strictly speaking, free. However, unlike most everyone else in the novel, they are at least engaged in the pursuit of freedom—of psychological wholeness and the harmony between belief and action.
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For some time, Ella “becomes completely sexless” and no longer feels any desire, but understands that this is “the other side of being possessed by sex.” She starts looking for “the book which is already written inside her.”
Ella’s loss of feeling leads her to wait for both sex and art to spontaneously rise from some latent place within her—she begins waiting for her unity of mind and purpose to emerge on its own, rather than actively pursuing it.
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Anna, who insists that she is Anna, declares that she is also Ella, but sometimes not Ella—she does not understand how “Ella separates herself from me and becomes Ella.” At a party once, Anna met a girl named Ella, who had penetrating eyes and knew that she needed exactly “an inch of red wine” to get intoxicated—which is “not Anna at all.”
Anna recognizes the gap between herself and her fictional alter ego, which is a necessary result of all writing and not a coincidence. Every character has multiple selves, and Ella is both one of Anna’s selves and something more.
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Ella thinks of a story: a woman gives up her whole life, emotional and professional, for her affair with a man, who criticizes her for trying to be “a career woman” and sustain a social life. When he leaves her, she “becomes everything he has criticized her for being,” as a means of revenge. Then she meets the man again, and he falls in love with her, wanting her to have been a promiscuous socialite all along. She rejects him, because “he has rejected her ‘real’ self.” Worried that the story might come to life, Ella never writes it.
By imagining her relationship with Paul as a mere story, Ella replicates Anna’s creative process—art imitates life within a novel in which Anna tries to imitate her life. Anna’s fictional, autobiographical character creates her own fictional, autobiographical character. Ella adds a conclusion that looks like revenge, but also realizes that perhaps her “‘real’ self” would not want revenge.
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Ella thinks of another story that features a woman “over-ready for serious love,” and a man “playing at the role of a serious lover because of some need for asylum or refuge.” The woman “turns into a jailor,” feeling a different, possessive version of herself take over. She insists she was never jealous. Ella wonders where this story came from—perhaps from the way her husband treated her. She does not write this story, either, feeling it is not hers.
This story is not the tale of a relationship the reader has already encountered, but rather foreshadows the remainder of the blue notebook. Yet, given the novel’s structure and the fragmentation of the notebooks, it is impossible to say whether this relationship happened in the past or the future.
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Ella visits her father, who is as solitary and unchanging as always. Ella wonders what her parents’ marriage must have been like and finally asks—her father is alarmed, apparently having forgotten her mother, whom he says was “altogether too good” for him, but lacked “all that sort of thing,” which Ella gets him to clarify was “sex, if that’s what you call it.” Ella asks whether he tried to “teach her,” but he says he just “went out and bought myself a woman. What did you expect?”
Ella’s parents’ relationship, it seems, was yet another failed marriage, based on obligation and miscommunication. Her father is almost unable to talk about sex, and was clearly unwilling to address it with her mother. Curiously, while the reader encounters Ella’s father here, Anna never reveals anything about her own parents or upbringing.
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Ella’s father says that Ella was justification enough of his marriage. Family seems “pretty unreal” to him; he has never felt “blood ties.” They agree they have a bond, but it must be something else besides blood. He claims that God, “whatever that may mean,” is the most important thing for him, and that “people should leave each other alone.” He knows nothing about Ella’s life and does not want to. She insists that her affair was more important than her marriage; he says the same of his. Ella’s son, her father says, will “turn into a cannibal like everyone else.” He insists that “people don’t help each other, they are better apart,” and ends the conversation.
Much like Tommy at the beginning of the book, Ella’s father is satisfied as a hermit; like Ella, he sees how people often sell themselves short by following the usual rules of social organization (especially family and marriage). Unlike Ella, though, he has completely lost faith in human connection. He thinks that all relationships lead to mutual destruction—that people ultimately offer one another nothing and can only be whole on their own.
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Alone, Ella remembers her mother running when her father kissed her; he spent his days alone with books, stuffing drawers with unshared writings, which would eventually surprise Ella. When she asks if he writes poems, he is astonished and brings her a sheaf of them, about isolation and adventure, mostly from the perspective of soldiers from history. Like Ella, her father never thought of publishing; he has read her novel, but thinks suicide an unworthy topic—everyone considers it, but Ella was wrong to write about it, he explains.
Anna reveals that Ella’s father, too, is a writer and turns his own experiences of war into literature—but only by exploring other figures (like Anna through Frontiers of War), and never by confronting himself head-on (like Anna in her newer fiction, or Lessing herself in The Golden Notebook). His distaste for Ella’s novel about suicide suggests that he thinks there is a profound danger in spreading one’s own tumultuous ideas—a notion that echoes Anna’s anxieties about making her notebooks public.
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Ella’s father thinks that Ella is especially wrong to demand happiness from life (he says it is because of her communism). She insists that people can change, but he refuses to think so. In trying to write thereafter, she continues to get stuck in “patterns of defeat, death, irony” but eventually decides to “twist it into victory”: a story about a man and woman “both cracking up because of a deliberate attempt to transcend their own limits.” She waits for the story to form itself inside her.
Ella’s father is certainly a “latter-day stoic”—he seeks satisfaction without hope. The “patterns of defeat” here clearly refer to Anna’s own failures to write, and indeed this proves the end of Ella’s story in the yellow notebook—the suicide of a novel, as it were. However, Ella’s proposed story also foreshadows the end of the blue notebook: the Anna in the blue notebook writes the yellow notebook, which writes the blue notebook. Author and subject are muddled, fact and fiction are indiscernible, and the “true” Anna—the one behind the texts she creates—must exist but cannot be pinned down neatly.
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For eighteen months, the blue notebook consists of short, factual notes, such as one expounding most of the concrete dates in Anna’s life (birth, death, Africa, marriage, joining and leaving the Party). This is all crossed out, and below it, she writes rapidly, nearly illegibly, that “all that is a failure too,” for it seems more false than any of the other notebooks, worse than even the day-long description of September 15, 1954.
Anna continues trying to make an accurate record of the truth in the blue notebook; as her intensive description of a single day fails, she tries to simply note the undeniable, basic facts of her life. But this also turns out to be false, as it offers a deceptively bare picture of her experiences. Somehow, fiction continues to express truth more easily than objective facts do.
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This question of truthfulness is not literary—it’s like psychoanalysis. Anna remembers telling Mother Sugar that the procedure seems to reduce one’s knowledge to the infantile “intellectual primitivism” of myth and emotion. Mother Sugar smiled at this suggestion, Anna remembers, and not at her critical analysis of her emotions. During this session, which happened years ago, Anna had told Mother Sugar that neurosis might mean “being highly conscious and developed,” accepting the conflicts that others block out in order to feel whole and sane.
This psychoanalysis session offers Anna’s most incisive and direct theory of mental unity and breakdown: many people maintain the appearance of unity through self-deception, by clinging to convenient myths that can’t capture the whole story. This makes psychoanalysis not a means to self-realization but rather one to this self-deception. Anna sees her own divided consciousness as evidence of her simultaneous desire for these myths (communist revolution, liberation through romance, and freedom as a woman) and recognition that they are false.
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Anna continues recounting the old psychoanalysis session. Mother Sugar asks if Anna is “better or worse” from analysis, and Anna says that she does not want to be “better at the cost of living inside myth and dreams,” that she is less in conflict, but perhaps not morally better. For a moment, as Mother Sugar frowns, Anna feels like they are having an authentic moment, outside the context of the analysis. Anna explains that, were she describing a dream, Mother Sugar’s smile would signal “the pleasure of recognition, of a bit of rescue-work, so to speak, rescuing the formless into form,” naming something—but also negating pleasure, like the joy of dreams, “safely held in the story,” which can never be matched in waking life.
Instead of forgetting one half of the battle between myth and reality, and therefore falling into the juvenile naivety of people like Marion and Rose Latimer (myth) or the hardened, withdrawn cynicism of people like Molly and Ella’s father (reality), Anna insists on trying to resolve this contradiction on her own terms. “Naming” and dreams are both ways of reinterpreting reality through myth, turning the formless chaos of real life into something orderly but false. The lingering question is whether art necessarily does this, too—The Golden Notebook can be seen as Lessing’s attempt to create art that captures reality’s chaos and contradictions rather than packaging it into order.
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Anna asks whether Mother Sugar thinks she is “ready for the next stage,” by which she means the one where “I leave the safety of myth and Anna Wulf walks forward alone.” Mother Sugar makes a joke about Anna’s communism, and Anna says that Mother Sugar seems to think individuation is about recognizing one’s experiences as aspects of universal human experience, in order to place them as archetypes or pieces of history, which allows one to disavow one’s individual ownership over them. Anna has learned to feel through analysis, but then she is asked to “put it away, put the pain away where it can’t hurt, turn it into a story or into history.” She refuses: she is “free and strong” because she has done this, “and what now?”
To “leave the safety of myth” is to confront the contradictions and chaos of real experience without the crutch of stories or archetypes that make experience easy to interpret in terms of universal ideas about what all people must be. Mother Sugar and communism (Freud and Marx) both insist that Anna see her individual experience only in terms of these greater myths. This means denying her individuality—the unique blend of experience that exceeds formulas—and her freedom—roughly, the ability to choose her life, rather than being forced to live out a universal archetype.
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Anna repeats that she wants “to walk off, by myself, Anna Freeman,” living in a way women have never been able to. Mother Sugar reminds her that women have achieved art, independence, and sexual freedom in the past. Anna insists her unique accomplishment is her refusal to see herself in the terms of history, to simply fulfill “the old dream of the golden age” or any other dream—she wants to cut off the “old and cyclic” from the new and creative in herself.
In reasserting her desire to “walk off,” Anna makes one crucial change: she uses her maiden name, Freeman, rather than her married name, Wulf. Not only does this represent her refusal to define herself in terms of marriage and insistence on enjoying the freedom of a man, but it also plays on the novel-within-a-novel Free Women, which can be seen as Anna’s fulfillment of this quest for freedom.
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Mother Sugar frowns, but assures Anna that she fully believes in people’s potential to change. However, Anna insists that Mother Sugar’s actions—her smiles and frowns—belie this belief. Anna says she thinks people’s cracks are proof that “they are keeping themselves open for something.”
Mother Sugar’s belief in “change” is just another archetype of psychoanalysis—she apparently only believes that people can change in prescribed ways, moving from chaos to myth but never achieving unity through chaos—perhaps “cracking up” is precisely a way of achieving wholeness.
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Mother Sugar says that Anna should be writing, instead of saying this all to her—she could even write their sessions down. Anna suggests that the context of their relationship means she can say things she could never simply say to a reader—Mother Sugar asks whether she might be able to write for a minority. This goes against Anna’s principles, but regardless, it is still a problem of form, because people “can’t stand formlessness.” Yet she does not “hold the aristocratic view of art,” although Mother Sugar thinks the fact that she only writes for herself is aristocratic. But Anna reminds her that people around the world are “writing away in secret books, because they are afraid of what they are thinking.” Mother Sugar asks if Anna is afraid of what she is thinking and reaches for appointment book; the session is over.
Anna finds herself caught up in two more contradictions. First, she is so distraught with the art world’s elitism and concerned about writing socially valuable “communal” art that she does not reveal her writings to anyone, for fear that they will fail to meet this standard. Secondly, her hope for “communal” art is precisely the hope to write a universal myth or story of the sort she has just rallied against. To resolve this contradiction, she must make her most private, individual feelings—her own genuine art—available broadly to the world (which is, of course, why the reader has access to her journals).
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After drawing a black line, Anna recounts buying the table for her notebooks; she never planned to have the four notebooks she has today, but since moving to her flat, she has given them room in her life. Moving has also led her to read through the books for the first time, which reminds her how much Michael’s rejection impacted her. She is also “disturbed” because she cannot recognize herself in her writing due to her “sterility” and critical tone. The “record of facts” in much of the blue notebook feels alien—words are increasingly “a series of meaningless sounds” whenever she thinks, or when she looks back at the things she does manage to write.
Anna’s table is a small step from keeping her notebooks completely private to bringing them into the broader world, just as her move out of Molly’s flat is step towards bringing her notebooks (her divided mind) out of hiding and taking them seriously. Anna transitions from writer to reader, echoing the sense of confusion and chaos that confronts many readers of The Golden Notebook.
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Anna realizes that she is breaking down—if “words are form,” then she is becoming formless, nothingness, her intelligence dissolving. She has a recurring nightmare, which Mother Sugar made her realize was about “joy in spite.” At first, she dreamed that her Russian vase had an “anarchistic and uncontrollable” personality and threatened “everything that was alive.” Usually, it was an old man or woman. Mother Sugar could not get her to see anything positive in it, although she realized she should not fear it—which she tended to do even before she started to dream. Anna felt it unfair that it should be her responsibility “to force this thing to be good as well as bad.” She had the dream again last night, and it was more terrifying than ever, because the force was in a trusted friend, which means it was also her.
With Mother Sugar, Anna desires the breakdown of form; here, like readers who prefer a coherent narrative, Anna despairs at it—as words lose their meaning and stop referring to things in the ordinary way, she “walks forward alone” but encounters only chaos. The reader already knows that dreams are convenient myths, yet this joy-in-spite dream is unique because (unlike even many of Anna’s nightmares) it gives her no comfort, only a sense of terror. Mother Sugar’s suggestion that she let the dream be “good” represents an easy way out through misanthropy: to give up on other people, to take pleasure in her comfort in the world and superior knowledge of it, rather than trying to change anything or help people.
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Anna says she will write about “the experience to which the dream related,” but simply draws a black line and writes that she does not want to. Most people “have a sense of shape, of unfolding, in their lives,” and she can “name” her past selves, but… she trails off without finishing her idea and draws another black line.
Depending on how one interprets Anna’s black lines, they are marks of profound strength or weakness. She seems unwilling to let the dream stand in for her reality and names stand in for her past (that is, to let myth usurp individual experience), or perhaps is unable to confront reality through writing (or both).
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Anna remembers going to a political meeting at Molly’s house a few weeks before. A Jewish intellectual, Comrade Harry, managed to go to the Soviet Union and learn about the regime’s horrific anti-Semitism, but at the meeting he tries, as usual, to hide the worst of it from the British Party. He does not even mention it until most of the attendees have left for the meeting’s “closed” second phase. An American named Nelson gets up and accuses Harry’s mendacity of destroying the West’s communist movements.
Notably, a similar character named Harry came up in Anna’s fictionalized journals in the black notebook as her self-indulgent, elitist alter-ego’s conversation partner. Like Comrade John, Harry is dishonest and interested only in protecting the Party’s interests, not in the truth—but Nelson makes the same criticism that Anna feels, showing the courage to speak out in the Party that she has always lacked.
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Anna ends up sleeping with Nelson, but feels unable to write about it and draws another black line. Then she continues her recollection. Nelson genuinely asks her about her life—he seems so “grown-up,” unlike the rest of the other men who are chasing her, and she realizes “how easy it is, living deprived, to forget love, joy, delight.” He is already leaving his wife, and he gets along with Janet immediately.
Again, Anna’s self-reflection falters: she overcomes her initial unwillingness to write down her experience (but whether this represents her weakness or courage is up to the reader). Nelson has the self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and fatherly geniality that Michael lacked. Nelson initially seems like the perfect man for Anna, which is perhaps why she finds it so difficult to write about their relationship.
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That night, Nelson is nervous and talkative, and he leaves abruptly at midnight. The next morning, he is normal again, but it soon becomes clear that “he had a mortal terror of sex, could never stay inside a woman for longer than a few seconds, and had never been different.” Yet they develop a trust, and Anna convinces herself she can “cure” him, even though she knows she is really following women’s “deep instinctive need to build a man up.”
Whereas Anna and Max (or Willi) had neither sex nor love, and then Anna and Michael had sex but not love, Anna and Nelson have love but not sex. Just like the actor Julia slept with in the yellow notebook, Nelson’s underlying sexual anxiety suddenly blocks off his emotions and Anna recognizes that the dysfunction is only his to resolve.
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After a week, Nelson becomes “driven by a shrill compulsive hysteria.” The second time they sleep together, he speaks out against all women, then disappears for two weeks, leaving Anna distant and depressed and occasionally calling to make excuses (to “women,” not to her). Then he visits, seeming perfectly charming, and Anna agrees to come to his home for a party, since she has decided they would just be friends.
Nelson has a split romantic personality: he is everything Anna wants but hates women because of his own problems, and then treats her solely on the basis of her gender even though he is perfectly capable of relating to her as an individual.
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Anna is “ashamed and humiliated” to see Nelson’s huge but “tasteless, anonymous” flat, full of friendly, rich, and uninteresting Americans. Nelson’s wife is attractive and stylish, seemingly self-assured but, under the surface, clearly anxious and paranoid about her husband, who never returns her continual stare. The Americans traffic in self-deprecating humor and cover up Nelson’s obvious tension with his wife. They also drink excessively, and Anna follows suit, becoming the drunkest person there. She observes a couple, “a tiny blonde woman” who drinks four double scotches in an hour and her “big ugly dark” husband, whom she infantilizes and begs to stop drinking. This is clearly “the basis of this marriage.”
The marital relationships on display here are all founded on power imbalances: Nelson clearly mistreats his wife much as he did Anna; the blonde woman “mothers” her husband just as Mrs Lattimer “mothered” Stanley in the black notebook. As during the red notebook’s canvassing and the black notebook’s pigeon hunt, humor becomes a way for everyone to simultaneously acknowledge and diffuse (but not truly resolve) their tension. The alternative, of course, is Anna’s model: confronting tension and division, even if it means risking madness.
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Nelson’s wife, and everyone else, seems “in some permanent, controlled hysteria,” the same as English couples, but self-aware about it and willing to “name” their problems to avert pain. Around midnight, Nelson, his wife, and the blonde’s husband, Bill, get into an argument in front of the whole room, which simply laughs away the tension. In the corner, Nelson and his wife joke their way through an argument about his career (which she thinks is stagnant) and her incessant worry (which he finds intolerable).
The Americans’ humor is a form of “naming,” like psychoanalysis, that Anna sees as based in willful ignorance. Yet this is arguably a better coping mechanism than English couples’: repression and denial. This recalls the difference between Paul and Jimmy’s attitudes: Paul mocked everyone to avoid having to take any firm stand, while Jimmy brooded and drowned his misery with alcohol.
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Everyone else starts dancing, and Nelson decides to dance with Anna instead of his wife. As a joke, he even propositions her in front of everyone, but Anna can see from his wife’s expression that they have probably already fought about her. Despite this, she kisses Anna’s cheeks on her way out, and Anna realizes that Nelson and his wife share “the closest of all bonds, neurotic pain-giving.” Anna feels acutely certain that Nelson will never leave his wife.
Anna sees that, while she can do nothing to resolve Nelson’s neurosis, at least his wife validates it; as when she recognized her desire to be controlled by Richard and insisted a “real man” created a “whole area of tension” in Free Women, she sees that these American couples function precisely by indulging one another’s perverse and contradictory desires.
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The following evening, Anna gets stuck on the image of a man and woman wandering around a rooftop. He tells her he loves her, but she is terrified—he just “wanted to hear how it would sound,” and she really loves him, which nearly drives him to jump off.
While this episode obviously points to men’s insincerity towards and manipulation of women, it emphasizes their profound vulnerability: the man, not the woman, is most deeply hurt, perhaps because he receives love he knows he is incapable of giving.
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That morning, Nelson calls to tell Anna he wants to marry her, but then starts yelling at her, as if at his wife or analyst (who was on vacation). After an hour, he calls again, his normal self, but insisting that Anna tell him he has not hurt her. He says he can “imagine really loving someone,” which would be a “blueprint for the future,” and Anna is charmed. After their conversation, Anna wonders how men can talk to women in the way Nelson just did—to hurt them and then demand to be assured that they hadn’t, to create “a parody of meaning.” This is when Anna has the nightmare about Nelson, the friend who turned out to have “the smile of joyful spite.”
Nelson completely cracks up into the two halves of his personality: one that recognizes the potential of love—or at least pretends to recognize it in order to lead Anna on—and one that takes joy in spite. He ends up parodying himself, even if his first half is sincere, because meaning requires psychic unity—which is, of course, the core of Anna’s struggle to write. Clearly, Anna’s image from the night before is about Nelson.
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While the dream has not repeated, Anna has rejected a man she met at Molly’s house, for she is afraid of failing again. After another black line on the page, she describes this man, De Silva, who had returned to his native Ceylon from London years ago after failing to make a living as a journalist. His family and wife did not get along, and all of the sudden he returned to London on a whim and borrowed money. He is “cool, detached, witty,” and has since found another job; he propositions Anna, and she refuses, as she would refuse any man, but invites him to a dinner. At the dinner, he insists his wife is suddenly no longer planning on moving to London but now hoping to stay in Ceylon.
De Silva’s collected manner contrasts strongly with his evidently fickle life decisions—whereas Nelson is caught up in his changing emotions, De Silva keeps them at a distance. He is also indifferent to others’ emotions—as proven by his willingness to abandon his family—and the truth. Again, Anna confronts the two ways out of her division through Nelson (who passionately believes in myths he cannot reconcile) and De Silva (who gives up on emotions and love).
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After dinner, De Silva insists on telling Anna a story. High on marijuana, he once walked up to a girl in the street and asked if she would sleep with him. Surprisingly, she said yes. He asked that she let him pretend to be “desperately in love with [her],” but ignore it; he said it was fascinating and wonderful, but she could not stay in her role. He felt he had “never been so in love. But she kept spoiling it by responding.” The girl was angry, of course, but he did not care and never saw her again.
De Silva is able to feel love for the girl only when he assures them both that his emotions will not be genuine; he wants love to be unilateral and, like so many men in this book, only cares about his own experience during sex. He seems to fundamentally fear authentic feeling and vulnerability; of course, the fact that he tells Anna this story about his heartlessness further suggests that he measures his sexual conquests by the extent to which he can manipulate women.
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Later, De Silva tells another story, about his friend B.B., permanently unsatisfied with his marriage, who was sleeping with his cleaning woman. The cleaning woman told De Silva that she loved B.B. but was only with him “because his wife isn’t good for him.” De Silva slept with the woman, too, and then B.B.’s wife came back, delighted to find him visiting. He told her about B.B.’s affair and she was furious. De Silva says he did it just “to see what would happen, that’s all,” and smiles the exact same smile from Anna’s nightmare. However, his desire “to see what will happen” is something Anna shares, like the feeling of “it didn’t matter to me.”
De Silva clearly takes joy in spite: he relishes the opportunity to ruin one of his best friend’s marriages and sees B.B.’s wife’s devastation as proof of his own power. Like Paul Blackenhurst, he exemplifies dangerous half of dissolution: enjoying one’s own power to destroy order. Yet Anna sees this mindset’s appeal: it insulates people from injury, since they refuse to be vulnerable.
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Anna spends the night with De Silva “because it didn’t matter.” At times, he seems like a desperate infant, and they are both “friendly and detached” in the morning. But he grows “angry and vicious” when she says she does not plan to have sex with him again. She suggests that he would not care whether they slept together again; he insists that he does indeed care, but she dismisses him regardless.
In sleeping with De Silva “because it didn’t matter,” Anna seems to be trying on his perspective toward people and emotions—she is able to make herself feel nothing, but De Silva’s fury when Anna rejects him proves that his attitude does not truly resolve emotional turmoil. Other people do not matter to him, but his ability to control other people is the most important thing to him.
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De Silva calls later and asks to have “a friend of mine” sleep in Janet’s room. Anna is confused, then calls him back to clarify, and he confirms that he was planning to sleep with a prostitute in Janet’s room, so that Anna could hear them have sex. He wails and cries like a child and asks for forgiveness. Then he sends two letters, one detached, one “the hysterical wail of a child.” Anna sees him as “incarnate, the principle of joy-in-giving-pain.” He appears in her nightmares, and soon Molly calls to inform her that he left his wife and children well before moving to London. Anna later meets B.B., who speaks well of De Silva, even though he is not paying his wife’s allowance and still likes B.B.’s cleaning woman.
De Silva’s impotent bid to hurt Anna just leads him to further realize his fundamental powerlessness over her; he reveals that he, like Nelson, remains psychically split. Ironically, he was afraid to admit that he was single (presumably because this suggests his weakness, or need for women), even though Anna’s frustration with men revolves largely around their tendency to leave their mistresses for their wives. And B.B., now divorced, seems to share De Silva’s lack of empathy.
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